Western Wednesdays—HARLAN by Frank Roderus

In one of the most dangerous and horrifying cases of mistaken identity, readers race against the clock alongside one of the most disreputable of heroes in Harlan, by Spur award-winning author Frank Roderus. Have fun rooting for the bad guy to win the day against the worst guy in this deceptive thrill ride of a Western!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Prologue

Vernon Kinder grabbed the dipper and tried for the third time to rinse the sharp, acid taste of vomit from his mouth, but water was not what he needed here. Whiskey might work but he hadn’t brought a bottle with him, dammit. He wondered if maybe Kenny had. Or…Vernon shook his head. It didn’t matter if Will Howard had any inside his soddy. Vernon wouldn’t set foot back inside that house even if he would get a lifetime supply of bonded whiskey for doing it. The sight of what was in there…Vernon gagged again just from thinking about it. He spun around and bent over with the dry heaves. Christ, he’d already lost everything he’d eaten for the past three days. A thin stream of mucus was all he could get out. Jesus! He straightened up and reached for the water dipper.

“D’you think they did the kid too, Vern?” Kenny asked, ignoring Vernon’s puking.

Vernon spat, rinsed and spat again. “I don’t know and I ain’t gonna look. I ain’t going back in there. Not for love nor money.”

“Somebody has to. They’ve got to be buried, you know.”

“Fine, but I ain’t gonna do it. Let the marshal come out and do that shit.”

“The marshal doesn’t have jurisdiction out here, Vern. That’d be the sheriff.”

Vernon scowled. “Then don’t hold your breath. That sonuvabitch ain’t been to this end of the county since just before the last election. And we’uns voted for Delton then so I don’t expect we’ll see our sheriff anytime soon.”

“Somebody has to do something though, Vern. Jesus God! Will is laying dead in there and both them kids and…and Margaret buck naked and…and…what all was done to Margaret wasn’t human, Vern. Wasn’t even human. It must’ve been Indians that killed them all. Must’ve been. Couldn’t be no white man cut…did all that shit to them. Couldn’t of been.”

“Maybe,” Vernon said cautiously, looking around as if he expected to see a screaming horde of wild savages spring at them from Will Howard’s hog pen or possibly the hen house. “Maybe it was Injuns at that. I guess, hell, it must’ve been.”

“What are we going to do about the bodies, Vern?”

“Shit, I dunno. But I’m telling you straight out, Kenny. I ain’t going back inside that house. No, sir, not never.”

“We have to tell somebody. Do something,” Kenny said.

“I told you what I think. We’ll ride back t’ town. Tell the marshal there. The justice o’ the damn peace too. An’ the doc. Prob’ly make him puke too when he sees what’s in there. That fancy college Doc went to the war, I bet he didn’t see the like of this in none of that shit.” Vernon shook his head. “Jesus God, Kenny. Jesus God!”

“I guess we ought to, I don’t know, shut the door at least. Keep the coyotes out and all them.”

“If you know a way to keep the stinking flies out, it’d be a blessing, you know that? Some of them flies crawled on me when we was in there, Kenny. Makes me feel like they was rubbing some of that shit on me. You know what I mean?” The thought made Vernon’s gorge rise again and he once more doubled over in an attempt to empty an already vacant stomach.

His friend Kenny quietly walked around to the front of the sod house and pushed the door closed. The latch was broken—there must have been a struggle—so he used Margaret’s churn to prop the door closed. It was the best he could do at the moment. And like Vernon, Kenny had no intention of going inside that place again. In his mind’s eye he could still see the ugliness within. For the rest of his life he would still see that, he suspected.

Kenny fetched their horses from the rickety corral that Will Howard had built and tried to lead them over to Vernon, but neither horse was willing to go near. Most likely they could smell the blood. Horses generally will shy from the scent of blood.

“Come on, Vern. Quit your puking and mount up. We got to go tell somebody about this.”

Chapter 1

Laura Hannigan felt a flutter of excitement. There was a man, a stranger, talking with Jim. They stood beside the barn, shielded from the ever-present wind. It was nigh onto suppertime and Laura considered whether she had time enough to freshen up and change into a nicer dress. Something with the color in the material not quite so washed out and…oh, good heavens, this old thing had a patch on the pocket. She could not allow the gentleman—and from the way he was dressed, this man was a very fine gentleman—she could not possibly allow him to see her like this.

But if she ducked into the bedroom now her biscuits might burn. If she took them out of the oven now, they would be half raw on the inside.

Laura stood at the window, peering out and dithering, staring at the visitor as if she were a little girl with neither sense nor manners. She had to change. But if she went in now…

Abby saved her. Laura and Jim’s only daughter came rushing inside, all a-bubble with excitement. “Mama, Mama, did you see, there’s a man out there talking to Papa, oh he’s a fine-looking man, dressed like out of a picture book or something. Did you see him, Mama, can we invite him in to dinner, well, can we, Mama, can we?”

“Settle down, sweetie. Your papa knows enough to invite the gentleman to stay, and I have already seen him, thank you very much.” Laura hurriedly reached around to her back and untied the strings of her apron, then yanked it over her head. “I have something I need you to do, dear. I want you to watch those biscuits. Mind what you are doing now. They shouldn’t be brown on top, just a nice light gold color. You remember what I taught you.”

“Yes, mama, but…”

“No buts, if you please. I have to go change. I won’t be a minute.” She left Abigail alone in the kitchen while she herself darted into the tiny, nearly dark cubicle she shared with Jim. Abby slept in the loft overhead.

The gentleman. Wherever should they put the gentleman? Abby was too old to take into her parents’ bed nowadays, and Jim worked hard. He deserved a sound sleep in his own bed with his wife at his side. But the gentleman. She was not sure how she should treat him. An ordinary drifter or cowhand she could ask to go up the ladder to Abby’s loft, and they could lay a pallet on the floor down here for Abigail. But…a gentleman? Oh my. Whatever was she to do?

She was not immobilized by her indecision though. While she gave thought to the problem of where to sleep everyone she was a whirlwind of activity. Grabbing her Sunday dress off the peg. Fingers flying to unbutton her patched and faded old housedress. Throwing the garment off and hurriedly yanking her best dress over her head. Oh dear.

She stepped to the mirror and squinted in an effort to see in the poor light. She reached up to snatch some of the pins from her hair, then quickly brushed and tucked and pinned the curls in place again. She was sure she had done a dreadful job of it but it was the best she could do. And if she waited too long…

“Oh!” She hadn’t heard the oven door clatter. Whatever was Abigail doing out there? The biscuits were sure to be ruined. She grabbed her apron off the bed and ran back into the kitchen. Abby was at the window, staring out at her papa and the visitor, the oven forgotten.

“Abigail Jane!”

Abby jumped. She knew it was serious when her mama called her by both her proper names. “They’re all right, Mama, really.” Laura knew the reassurance was meant at least as much for Abby herself as it was for her mother. Her daughter bent down to the oven and cracked open the door just enough that she could peep inside. Laura knew without looking that no harm had been done when she saw a wave of relief spread over Abby’s dear and freckled face. The child was eleven years old and the apple of Jim’s eye. Of her mother’s too, if the truth be known.

“They’re all right, Mama. See? I told you.”

“Are they ready to come out?”

“Yes’m.”

“Then you can put them on the table, if you please.”

The biscuits were suspiciously dark on top when seen outside the oven but not badly so. They would do. They had to do. Laura lifted the heavy coffeepot off the stove, placed four enameled bowls and four plates onto the table, used her apron as a potholder so she could get both hands on the big pot of bacon and Mexican pinto beans—thank the good Lord for pinto beans—and mentally declared herself ready…well, almost…for their guest.

“Abby, you can go out and tell your father that supper is on the table. Mind now, don’t just ring the iron to call him. We have a guest. Go out…slow and ladylike, mind…and tell him.”

Abby gave a little giggle, then gathered up her skirts and went larruping out the door like a wild Indian and not at the serene pace her mother would have preferred.

The truth, however, was that it was all Laura could do to keep from dashing out there with her.

They had not had a stranger come visit in…goodness, not since last Christmas, she thought.

She patted her chest and tried to slow her breathing and her racing heartbeat.

A stranger. A gentleman stranger at that. Oh my.

And so, so handsome. Abby was right. He did look like something out of a drawing in one of the finer catalogs or an elegant magazine. Before he entered he very carefully wiped his feet on the rag rug at the door and removed his hat. He was tall. Had to stoop a little to make sure he did not bump his head on the lintel. And his clothes. Goodness.

Laura could have swooned when he smiled at her. Without thinking about it she dropped into a little curtsy and the gentleman responded by bowing. She hadn’t been treated like this in…in ever so long a time.

“Mrs. Hannigan.” He smiled that smile again. It deepened the cleft in his chin and made his eyes—they were the brightest blue she thought she ever saw—made his eyes bright and merry. “I want you to know how much I appreciate Mr. Hannigan’s offer to take this stranger into your home for the evening. I hope I’ll not inconvenience you. And of course I shall be willing to pay for my lodging.”

“You’ll do no such thing, sir. We are always happy to have guests. You can catch us up with the latest news if you would. Have you met our daughter Abigail, sir?”

“I’ve had that pleasure, yes, ma’am.” He bowed to Abby too as if meeting her again. “My name by the way is Jarrett. Harlan Jarrett. I am a land speculator. I buy when I find a property and a price that I like and sell at a modest profit after. It is a particularly pleasant occupation because it allows me to meet so many fine folk such as yourselves.”

“Oh, dear. Please excuse my manners, Mr. Jarrett. Here I’m keeping you standing by the door when you and Mr. Hannigan should be at the table enjoying your dinner. Please. Take that chair there, Mr. Jarrett.”

“Thank you. May I have the honor of saying grace over the bounty Mr. Hannigan provided and you have prepared?”

“We are the ones who would be honored, Mr. Jarrett. Abby, fetch the ladle and put it in the beans, then we can all sit and…and Mr. Jarrett will offer the blessing.”

Later—Laura found the beans too salty and the biscuits overcooked but even so the meal seemed to have gone well enough—Jim leaned back in his chair and signified his pleasure by unfastening the top button on his trousers to make more room. Not that he really needed it. Jim was a lean man. A good man too and she was lucky to have him. He did not smoke or chew and rarely drank. He never beat or so much as smacked Laura and was patient with Abby. If her life was not perfect, it was nonetheless quite good and she was thankful for what she had.

“Tell me,” Jim said, “what is the news? We don’t take a newspaper and have mighty few visitors.”

“Not even neighbors?” Harlan Jarrett asked.

“None close enough to count. We get into town every month or two. That’s about it.”

“Then you haven’t heard about the raiders?”

“Raiders?”

Laura’s attention was piqued too but she was a little concerned that Abby was there. “Excuse me, gentlemen. Abigail. It is time for you to go upstairs and to bed.”

“But I haven’t…”

“I shall finish the dishes myself and we will do your lessons in the morning after you feed the chickens. Go on now.” Her tone of voice made it clear that she would brook no disagreement, while Abby’s expression made it just as clear how very much she thought the order unjust. “I said go.”

“Yes, Mama.” Abby dropped the cutlery into the wash pail and turned away. She climbed her ladder slowly instead of scampering up at her usual furious pace.

When Abby had disappeared into the loft Laura turned to Jim and Mr. Jarrett. “I apologize for the interruption. Please go on with what you were saying.”

“Actually, Mrs. Hannigan, I am pleased that you sent the child out of the room. She shouldn’t have to hear any of this.”

“Raiders, you said?” Jim prompted.

“Yes. A small gang apparently. There is disagreement whether they are red Indians or renegades of some other stripe, coloreds perhaps or Mexicans, even whites. No one knows. The reason no one knows what they are or how many is that they have never left any survivors behind to tell tales. They do…excuse me, but I do not wish to elaborate. They do terrible things. Simply terrible.

“They rob and kill and worse. Hit isolated places like this one.” Jarrett leaned close to Jim and said, “Never leave these handsome women of yours alone, Hannigan.” He sat back. “Not that it is my place to tell you your business, sir. But my advice is that you should be vigilant. And never leave your lovely ladies by themselves.”

The warning was shocking. Yet Laura could not help feeling a thrill of pleasure. Handsome women, Mr. Jarrett had said. Lovely ladies. Gracious! To think he would say such a thing about her, married a dozen years now.

“Might be I should take the birdshot out of my old scattergun and put in a charge of buck instead,” Jim said, nodding toward the door where the shotgun rested on pegs above the opening.

“That would be a good idea, Hannigan. Keep that and whatever other guns you have close to hand. Close to hand, sir. With savages on the loose a man cannot be too careful.”

“Thank you for the warning, Jarrett, and for the advice. Thank you very much.”

“It is the least I can do, Hannigan, and small recompense for such a fine meal and excellent company to take it in. I am in your debt, sir.” Jarrett smiled. “If you wouldn’t mind talking about something less troublesome, tell me what crops you intend putting in. I’ve heard a little about prices on the speculative markets, you see, and I might be able to give you a little advance knowledge of what will be selling well on the Chicago and Kansas City markets this fall.”

“Oh, we don’t sell that far away. No way to transport our produce, you see.”

“Perhaps not, but the prices there will affect what your local buyers pay.”

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Well, I have three fields prepared. I expect to put the east field in barley, mostly for our own use, you see, for feed. And then in the north field…”

Laura took that as her cue to quietly remove herself to the stove, where she drew hot water from the reservoir to wash the supper dishes. The men’s voices receded into a half-heard drone while her hands went though the routine of scrubbing and rinsing and wiping. But her mind heard over and over again Mr. Jarrett’s opinion that she and Abby were handsome and lovely. Oh, she would not soon forget something like that. It was the nicest thing she could remember happing to her in ever so long. Ever so long indeed.

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One Response to Western Wednesdays—HARLAN by Frank Roderus

  1. LINDA B says:

    DANG IT, I’D LOVE TO REVIEW ANY OF THESE BOOKS. HURRY SANTA AND BRING ME SOME GIFT CARDS!!

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